A blue and silver sombrero.

Celebrating Cinco de Mayo: Five YA Titles Highlighting Hispanic Heritage

Are you celebrating Cinco de Mayo this year? Although Cinco de Mayo officially commemorates a victory for the Mexican army at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War, it’s evolved into an international celebration of Mexican culture and heritage. Regardless of your background or your plans this Cinco de Mayo, if you’re like most of us at Ooligan Press, any good day of celebration somehow involves a refreshing drink paired with a relevant new read. We may not know your drink preference, but we’ve compiled a list of YA titles highlighting Hispanic heritage that are perfect for celebrating this cultural holiday.

  1. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sanchez
  2. Published in 2017, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter tells the story of Julia Reyes, a teenage girl growing up in a low-income Chicago neighborhood with her older sister Olga and her undocumented parents. Olga is the perfect Mexican daughter, and Julia is . . . not. Olga still lives at home, wears modest clothes, doesn’t date, and has a respectable job. Julia, however, is extremely independent, rebellious, and dreams of going to college in NYC. After Olga dies in a tragic accident, Julia discovers her older sister had a secret life. Unfortunately, just as Julia feels like she’s starting to understand Olga better, life gets even more complicated when Julia gets her first boyfriend and her parents react by sending Julia to stay with family in Mexico.

  3. With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo
  4. After getting pregnant her freshman year of high school, Emoni Santiago’s life has been about hard choices that prioritize taking care of her daughter and her abuela. The only place she’s able to relax and let everything go is in the kitchen, where Emoni adds that extra something special to everything she cooks. Emoni dreams of working as a chef after she graduates, but she knows it’s impossible because she has to take care of her family. Despite knowing her chances of “making it” are poor, once Emoni starts cooking, she can’t stop her talent from breaking free.

  5. Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet by Laekan Zea Kemp
  6. Somewhere Between Bitter and Sweet is a story told through the alternating perspectives of Penelope Prado and Xander Amaro, two teenagers living in Austin, Texas. Penelope’s dream is to open a pastry shop next to her father’s restaurant, Nacho’s Tacos, and Xander is a new-hire at Nacho’s who’s looking for a chance at a normal life. This unlikely pair first comes together because of food, and they quickly find themselves working together when Xander’s immigration status and the restaurant are both threatened.

  7. The Go-Between by Veronica Chambers
  8. Camilla del Valle’s mom is a glamorous telenovela actress, her dad is famous for voice-over work in blockbuster films, and every teenage girl in Mexico City wants to be her. Needless to say, Cammi’s life is pretty glamorous. But when her mom gets cast in an American sitcom and the family moves to LA, her life doesn’t feel quite so glamorous anymore. Her mom’s new TV role is as a maid, her dad struggles to find work, and Cammi’s new friends assume that she’s only able to attend their expensive private school because of a scholarship. At first Cammi plans to use their mistake as a way to teach her friends a lesson, but the more she lies about where she’s from, the more she struggles to know where she belongs.

  9. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
  10. Originally published in 1983, The House on Mango Street is a critically acclaimed and best-selling coming-of-age classic that tells the story of Esperanza Cordero through a series of vignettes portraying life in a Latino community. Esperanza is a young girl living in Chicago who uses poems and stories to express her oppression and feelings of disconnection to her own life while growing up on Mango street.

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

What Can Editors Learn from AMERICAN DIRT?

One of the most newsworthy events in the pre-pandemic publishing world, the American Dirt controversy took the end of 2019 by storm. What Macmillan hoped would be a tentpole book for the year ended up highlighting some of publishing’s greatest problems in a high-profile way. This New York Times article does a great job of explaining all the details surrounding what happened, but it’s perhaps more important to consider how it happened. It’s no secret that publishing is an overwhelmingly white industry, and issues of diversity, representation, and bias are all too familiar to both writers and publishers. If it’s safe to say that we’re all aware of the lack of diversity and the need for greater, more accurate representation of marginalized voices, then how do controversies like the one around American Dirt continue to happen?

Rather than actively seeking out and publishing the work of more diverse writers, publishers continue to predominantly employ white writers and editors while also publishing more diverse stories. This leads to books being written and edited by those who don’t share the lived experiences they represent, and oftentimes, flawed, incorrect, and even harmful representations of marginalized communities. The main issue readers took with American Dirt was that the author did not share the lived experiences she wrote from the perspective of, and that the authenticity and quality of the book suffered greatly as a result. It’s unclear whether or not the book underwent an authenticity read, but it is likely since Macmillan has been known to use them in the past. Regardless of whether it did, the book still fell short.

So what can editors learn from American Dirt? First, as an editor you have to understand that you come to a manuscript with your lived experience and your worldview. The way you edit is heavily influenced by these things, and being aware of them can help you understand what you can bring to a manuscript, and equally as important, what you can’t.

Second, no amount of editing or authenticity reading can replace the merit of an author who writes about a lived experience they have, whether in fiction or nonfiction. Similarly, the benefits of editing a manuscript that contains characters or events which relate to lived experiences you have cannot be understated. Though you don’t have to have personal experience with an event or share an identity with a character to edit well, it can help, and being mindful of the ways your identity is both similar to and different from the manuscript you’re working on will always improve your work.

Finally, use your platform for good. It’s clear that none of the editors who worked on American Dirt saw the controversy coming, but they potentially could have. For example, the #OwnVoices movement offered some idea that the book might receive backlash well before publication. Editors have a lot of power when it comes to what titles are acquired and eventually published, so it’s important to use that power to acquire diverse books written by diverse authors. All of this teaches editors that we need to edit with our identities in mind, use our platforms for good, and learn from our mistakes.

“You’re crazy” is Lazy: How Editors Can Most Authentically Portray Mental Illness in Fiction

The topic of mental health is one that has been more openly discussed in the media in recent years. While open dialogue around crucial issues is important to encourage, this increased exposure brings about new considerations and challenges, mainly about how we discuss mental health. Words have power, and the way fictional stories about mental health are told can have just as crucial of an impact on readers as facts presented in news outlets. Editors have the responsibility to put forth stories that promote a respectful and authentic perspective on mental health, and below are four practices they can implement to achieve this goal.

1. Create a house style guide about mental health language.

Editors and writers are given the opportunity to use language in such a way that encourages productive conversations about mental health. The Guardian’s style guide, which has a section specifically for mental health, lists words not to use, such as loony, maniac, nutter, etc. because they “stereotype and stigmatize.” The guide also advises moving away from language that paints the person as a victim, such as “suffering from” or “afflicted by.” Another example is the Buzzfeed style guide. They emphasize using “people-first” language (“a person with schizophrenia” vs. “a schizophrenic person”); understanding the difference between an emotion and a mental disorder (using “sad” vs. “depressed”); and they offer specific guidelines for articles that report on suicide, such as avoiding specification of the methods used and avoiding usage of the word “commit,” which can carry a criminal or negative moral connotation. If publishing houses employ a similar style guide, it encourages everyone to be on the same page about how to respectfully discuss issues and properly characterize a protagonist with a mental illness.

2. Hire Own Voices authors.

The term “Own Voices” was coined by YA author Corinne Duyvis, who hashtagged “#ownvoices” on Twitter in 2015. Own Voices authors are writers who share the same identity—race, ethnicity, gender, disability, etc.—as their protagonist. Lee & Low Books, an independent, minority-owned children’s book publisher, surveyed over thirteen thousand employees within thirty-five publishing companies and eight review journals in its first Diversity Baseline Survey in 2015. The data showed the publishing industry is overwhelmingly white, straight, and non-disabled, making it difficult for stories that aren’t mainstream by these standards to reach the collective consciousness of publishing companies. Adrianna Herrera, an Own Voices romance novelist, says, “That in and of itself is a problem, because it’s kind of the unwritten rule that queer stories don’t have a place in the general mainstream market or [sit] on the bookshelves next to the historicals.” As a queer person of color, she set out to write stories that reflected her own experience, and people who find themselves at a similar intersection of identity can relate to them. For an example of a publishing house that prioritizes Own Voices authors, check out Blue Crow Publishing.

3. Where Own Voices authors aren’t accessible, hire sensitivity readers.

Sensitivity readers serve as part fact-checker, part “cultural ambassador,” according to Slate journalist Katy Walman. Minority group members are hired by an author or a publishing house and are specifically tasked with identifying hurtful, inaccurate, or inappropriate depictions of that group. According to Marketwatch, 50.2 percent of Americans five years old or less are part of a minority ethnic group; they make up the first majority-minority generation in U.S. history. These statistics and the ever-growing presence of social media contribute to growing concerns for writers: an audience’s desire for more diverse representation that might be out of a given writer’s comfort zone or personal experience, and, if done incorrectly, can result in major bad press from the young, socially conscious online readers. Ooligan sought out sensitivity readers for a recent title, and the experience proved invaluable as a learning opportunity for those involved and for the editorial process overall.

4. Include helpline information at the end of relevant books.

Mind-wise Innovation, powered by a team of behavioral health professionals from Massachusetts who equip organizations to discuss mental health, detail the appropriate ways for media to tell the story of suicide, as well as offer tips. The first tip they share is to emphasize that suicide is preventable, and to include information on warning signs and how to talk to someone who may be at risk. They say, “Perhaps most importantly, include resources. This would include a number for a suicide hotline and maybe even local resources where someone could go to get help.” While these guidelines are suggested for traditional media outlets, they can also be effective in relevant books.

The meaning we attribute to words, the ways we view people unlike us, and the cultural norms we slip into as a collective society shape the way we perceive people and their circumstances. These are a few examples of many decisions editors and publishers can make that can help contribute to a healthier societal perception of mental illness.

Ooligan Press Statement

Ooligan Press stands in solidarity with the entire PSU community in calling for justice and accountability in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many more. Black lives matter.

We commit to doing our own work to better our practices as a publisher to amplify BIPOC voices in a systematic and accountable way. To that end, we commit to acquiring at least 25 percent of our titles from Own Voices writers each year. We will begin this work immediately, knowing that publishing books is a long arc with powerful results.

For the time being, Ooligan Press social media platforms will be used to share BIPOC voices, resources, books, authors, and direct calls to action. We commit to using our platform in this way beyond the current moment, and to amplifying Own Voices wherever possible.